Sewing: Completed Long Gown

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Photo on 6-19-17 at 4.53 PM #4 2.jpgThe camera is of poor capabilities and operating at an odd angle on an uneven timer in a room recently darkened by the approach of thunderstorms. But I’ve managed to finish this gown or long coat that I wrote about in the previous entry.

I’ve already noted what I’m dismayed about.  Now that I see it on me, I can add disappointment about the shoulder lines to the list.  I can’t figure out what’s pulling incorrectly to make the left shoulder (on the right side of your picture) so lumpy. And the sleeves are weird.

But it’s done.  My mother the artist follows Elizabeth Gilbert here; her interpretation is that “done is sometimes better than almost finished but nearly perfect.”

Quilts: finished

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Two quilts finished in three-ish half-days. The top one is the penguins from earlier, the bottom one in pink is the owls quilt.  Both are already spoken for, you can’t buy them.

Really, it’s three quilts but I’m having my doubts about the arrangement of materials for the third quilt. I think I could get the third done if I could get some feedback on whether or not people think it’s a good layout.

Here’s the third quilt. Tentatively, anyway.  I’m worried that the dark blue of the starry swirls doesn’t really match the green or the blue of the top of the quilt; and that the baby-blue trim doesn’t match either.  I suppose I could tie it all together with some thread of the right color… but it still makes me a little nervous.

What do you think? Leave me a comment.

Quilt Squares

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One of the things that came up recently was how to use Making to teach traditional subjects like, for example, history. I’m of the opinion that teaching Making for the sake of making things is valuable, but not everyone finds that argument convincing. So I figured, its time to learn some more advanced quilting techniques. A lot of the techniques, though, involve cut and reassemble: that is, assemble nine squares into a 3×3 block (or assemble 3 strips into a square);  use a rotary cutter or scissors to slice and dice the 3×3 in a variety of ways — mostly diagonals, and side-midpoints; and then sew and re-assemble. The first step, therefore, was the assembly process. I had to make up a number of 3×3 squares out of experimental fabric squares of various sorts. This has led to the creation of the various squares of fabric that illustrate this post. These are mostly 5″x5″ squares of fabric that I cut up from the remnants of my scrap bin — none of these squares would exist, were it not for other projects. But I find that I’m not entirely ready to slice and dice the 3×3 grids to make new things….Except that finally, I got over my fears. I did a four by four grid, to make an approximation of the form called the “Card Trick.”. I learned quite a bit about quilting from this one— the card trick is usually produced on a diagonal, and out of triangles.
 Finally, I got out the rotary cutter. And I sliced up one uninspiring 3×3 grid both directions: both diagonals, and both side-midpoints. Then I sewed these triangles together to form this crazy form of a cross. You can see that I need more practice at accurate cutting — but you can also see that complexity emerges from the Solve Et Coagula: the dissolution and recombination of parts. 
That is to say, when we take the raw material and subject it to both geometry and the knife, to both the straight edge and the rotation, new properties emerge from the old ones.

This isn’t to say that all of these patterns are beautiful — some of the cutting and sewing results in asymmetry or dullness or plainness. Some patterns won out for being more interesting or vibrant — some lost for being less interesting or uninspiring.  But it’s clear to me that quilt patterns emerged from certain standard practices to preserve fabric waste, and the discovery that the principles of geometry (not necessarily formal geometry, but more practical elements of it — straight edges, diagonals, rotation, and other practices) could be applied to fabric. 

Remarkable realities lurk inside any raw material — wood, glass, paper, metal, plastic, and yes even textiles — but it’s the mind and hands of the artisan that bring these materials to the surface. 



I had a couple of video interviews this past week for jobs. It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re being invited to express a free opinion as a consultant, or if you’re being considered for an actually-open position. No matter. You have to dress the part. That means putting on a tie, and something serious.img_3108

Like a pinstriped business apron.  My mother had the idea several months ago, when she pointed out that in the 1800s, before the factory floor did away with them, that serious-minded artisans and master makers often wore ties to show their professionalism (and their membership in various trade organizations, too), and aprons over their work apparel. Part of it was that the economic and political revolutions of the 1800s had made work clothes and business clothes more or less synonymous.  Everyone wore more or less the same designs of shirts, jackets, coats — the industrialization of the printing of patterns affected all of the classes together (chances are, most armchair historians have never thought about the way that women on the frontier had to make their own patterns, and not just their own dresses; or that they were stuck with the styles of clothes they’d brought with them. Have you ever made a pattern from an existing piece of clothing? I have — it’s relatively easy; and some of it boils down to taking a worn garment apart quite carefully, tracing the shapes of the pieces onto paper or even directly onto new fabric, and then cutting and assembling carefully. Before the advent of photography, think about the level of commitment and care and memory this required!

img_3110No matter… I have the Internet.  I must have looked at dozens of apron designs before selecting mine.  I made a pattern, figured out the fabric I wanted to use —  bright jewel-tone blue for the backing, and some serious gray pinstripes for the front.  I figured this was a good way to show off my interest in color theory, and to demonstrate a commitment to good artisanry.

Any good business costume should have a pocket close to the heart.  I put my businesslike apron’s fabric to work by cutting a square of fabric out, and applying it counter to the pattern, with horizontal stripes contrasting against the vertical stripes of the pinstripes.  This pocket was the hardest to make, and taught me a great deal about making dedicated pockets for pens, pencils and bone folders (a bookbinding tool), which always seem to go missing at the worst possible moment during a project.

The waist pockets were less specifically dedicated to particular tools.  I wanted them large enough to let my hands go in them easily, and I wound up setting up eight pockets in the waist of various sizes. Some are large enough, and deep enough, for a pair of full-size fabric scissors; others will only hold a bobbin, if I’m changing thread colors often.  Here you can see the jewel tones of the back side of the apron.img_3118

Once the pockets are attached, it’s time to zipper-stitch lickety-split the back and front together, neck strap and waist ties inside, right sides together. The result, an apron — a sort-of three-dimensional garment assembled out of essentially flat materials like fabric.  Turn the work, poke out the corners, press… voila. An apron.

It’s funny. I think about the number of times that former students complained about getting sawdust on their nice clothes, or having oil or grease from a tool or from a project on their hands.  How nice it would have been to have a place to wash it, to smear it, to remove it; or to remove the sweat from your hands when you’re sawing a board or planing a chair leg, or carving a stamp for leather or paper.  I should have had the students make aprons. They could have personalized and kept them, or made them in general purpose ways for the use of the students that came after them.  They’re an important part of a workshop’s culture, and they have a place and purpose in them — not a noble and glorious purpose, so to speak, but a proper place in the world, nonetheless.

Because there is something important about dressing the part you intend to play in the world — and not simply looking the part, but playing the part, and being the part.  If you’re going to be a Maker, or more than that, an artisan, it’s beneficial to know your tools well enough that you can use them to make yourself look good… you know, like a professional in pinstripes.


Practice Effect

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Doing anything over and over again usually results in improvement, at least to a point. Back when I was new to sewing, I had a project I was working on — making a stole or sash for one of the fraternal societies of which I’m a member.   I used cheap cloth, and used white thread to sew right-sides together, and didn’t properly adjust the tension on my sewing machine.  The result was the sash on the right, which has been an embarrassment to me almost every time I put it on.

While my sewing machine was out for repairs, though, I purchased new fabric that was more jewel-toned.  I sewed some trim onto the ends before sewing the back and front together, as well, which you can see in the second photograph.  And I sewed much more carefully and much more slowly as I worked my way through the project overall.

The result is a much higher quality sash (which in truth is almost the same as a deacon’s stole in an apostolic-orders Western church like the Episcopalians, Catholics and so on, though not the same as an Orthodox deacon’s stole, which wraps around the body quite differently).

My seams are much better.  The jewel tones of the fabric are much nicer, and the golden thread in the trim is a nice touch against the variant blues in the trim.  The project still needs some final touches of pressing and seam matching and so on.  But I know how to do those things now, and I didn’t when I first began learning to sew.

And that’s the relevant point, here, I think.  Schools do a great job of teaching about subjects: Here’s what you need to know about English. Here’s what you need to know about history.  Here’s what you need to know about biology or chemistry or physics.

But the Maker movement does things differently.  It doesn’t rely on about.  You don’t start off reading about sewing in a sewing class, or reading about table saws in a woodworking class.  You start off learning how to sew, how to saw wood to the correct dimensions.  A good teacher starts with some very simple projects, like an eye pillow, or a glasses case or a pencil case or a komebukuro, that are designed to build confidence and know-how.  Later on, you might move up to quilting, or making clothes. Later still, you move to English Paper Piecing or more elaborate constructions in garments.  At each step, the skills you already have, help inform the skills you’re trying to acquire.  You make mistakes, but the mistakes are often a frustrating combination of the old, basic errors and completely new ones.

Most of us hit natural barriers to improvement from time to time.  That’s normal. Often, it’s because there’s a mismatch between  your standard-issue solution that worked in all the other examples of projects you’ve ever done, and the brand-new-to-you! solution that’s been best-practice in your craft or Maker art form for decades (if not centuries).  That’s when you have to seek out a teacher, or a YouTube video, or an essay or a book. That’s when you learn about your craft — somewhere in the middling range of your skills, not at the beginning.  Some of these small things learned along the way, as a result of seeking to learn about my craft?

  • Thread your sewing machine with thread the same color as the fabric
  • — unless you want the contrast between thread and fabric as part of the design.
  • Use the right weight of interfacing that’s appropriate to your project.
  • Regularly change the needle on your sewing machine, approximately every four hours that the machine is in use.
  • Sew right-sides-apart after fold-press-pin
  • Iron more frequently than you want to.
  • Use your fabric scissors only for fabric; pink the extra fabric as needed.
  • Service your machine at least annually; save the old parts.
  • Improve your hand-sewing skills alongside your machine sewing skills
  • Learn to cut fabric accurately.
  • Modify patterns with a ruler and with French curves, not by eye.
  • Pinning is important — but pin in proportion to the desired finish-quality.

It’s nice to return to a project I did some years ago, and discover that I can do it better and more effectively and faster now, while also taking my time.  There’s an efficiency of process and movement that comes from knowing what you’re doing the second or seventh time around, that’s simply unbeatable.  But it takes time to acquire that level of skill.  No amount of knowing about will replace doing, when it comes to Making things.


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My sewing machine is back up and running. After a full service, and the repair of a pulley, it’s working again like a brand-new machine — under $100 in parts and repair costs.

The first thing to do was finish this little ‘doily’ that I had made using English Paper Piecing techniques.  I did a ‘right-sides together’ bag technique to finish the edges with another piece of fabric (a nice blue-tile motif).  I then did some decorative top-stitching as the quilt motif.  I should have done the work with a quilting ruler and a free-rotation foot. But I don’t have a small quilting ruler or a free-rotation foot.  More things to add to the list of tools/gear that I want, I guess.

Mistakes: The doily quilting pattern wound up borrowing freely from the pattern of hexagons. The ‘right sides together’ bag-making technique did not work well — I would have done better with a ‘cut, fold under and stitch’ technique with right sides apart. Applique, in other words, was the way I should have gone, rather than sewing right sides together.  The result was an outer edge that doesn’t have the precise hexagons of the original paper-piecing.  Oh, well. This is how we learn, right?

The back side is reasonably nice.  The white stitching resulted in a repetition or reiteration of the hexagon pattern on the front side, without slavishly duplicating it.   The tiles of the front are replicated in the tiling motif of the fabric on the back.

All in all, it was a successful project to learn a new set of skills: English Paper Piecing.

The first article in the series on EPP is here.

Sewing: buttonholes


Buttonholes. Does anything drive a tailor or seamstress (seamster?) as crazy as a buttonhole? Especially if you dont have the special foot attachement for your sewing machine? I don’t think so.

My first button ‘hole’…. HA!

Only a zipper comes close to the level of annoyance that a buttonhole possesses. A button hole is literally a hole in the fabric.  If a button hole hasn’t been made properly, the fabric will unravel and shred quite easily. Before long, the bag will come completely undone. Bye-bye bag.

And yet, the other challenge of button holes is that they are the last part of the project that must be done.  They’re the most challenging work, and the most visible, and the most susceptible to inaccuracy, and the most likely errors to be noticed, and the most likely errors to result in the critical failure of the whole finished object.

That is to say, adding a button hole to an amateur project is most likely to make the project either…

  •  A) amateur, or
  • B) ruined.

My fourth and fifth …

So of course it was time for me to tackle the challenge of a button hole. Fortunately, I had a ready-made project that needed button holes: the Komebukuro or Japanese rice bag made of eight squares of fabric.

A Komebukuro has eight button holes. Technically, they’re not button holes. There are two holes in each of the side walls of a Komebukuro, and a cord is woven in and out of them to pull the bag shut.  So, the beginner looks upon these eight holes as eight perfect opportunities to ruin the whole bag, and puts in an internal drawstring, instead.

Or… one can look at it as eight opportunities to master another aspect of one’s craft.

My seventh and eighth button holes

My first button hole was terrible. First of all it was not a frame of sewn edges.  It was a garbled mass of threads that didn’t look anything like a hole at all. The Ted and fourth (not pictured) were garbled and not really square or even obviously rectangular.   My fourth and fifth were heavy handed: a lot of thread and bunched fabric.  Not very pretty at all. But they were recognizably better.   The seventh was square.  By the eighth buttonhole, I was… still not a master. But the hole was recognizably a button hole.  Maybe a bit large, but still a buttonhole.

The finished Komebukuro is not as elegant as I’d like.  I think I should have used a cord, as is traditional, rather than a ribbon. And it’s a little small for a lunch box or lunch bag.  But expanding the size of the squares from 7″ to 10″ should take care of that problem.  Don’t you think?

In a program to teach sewing, the Komebukuro should occupy pride of place.  It teaches button-holes, straight sewing, pinning, measuring, measured cutting, the basics of the idea of quilting based in mathematics, and both straight stitches and top stitches.  With colored or patterned fabrics, it can also be used to teach pattern matching and right-sides-together protocols.  In other words, it’s a nice complement to some of the other beginner’s sewing projects I’ve proposed here.  But it’s also clearly the work of a master, as well.

Someone who’s mastered button holes, for example.  Which I promptly used to help make the Viking dice bags.

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